On Screen

'A Mighty Wind': Breezy Fun

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2003

CHRISTOPHER GUEST, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer have the satirical equivalent of the Midas touch. Everything they lampoon (or mockument, if I may introduce so counterfeit a verb) in their faux documentaries becomes hilarious gold.

They have tweaked and twitted heavy metal hair bands ("This Is Spinal Tap"), dog shows ("Best in Show") and small-town theatrical productions ("Waiting for Guffman"). And now in "A Mighty Wind," they reap the gold again. But this time, the stuff is a finer ore. It's subtler and gentler. You may not laugh as uproariously as you did with the other comedies, but you'll love the characters more. And besides, you're not supposed to make fun of aged folk musicians. They're very fragile people.

Alas, the beloved folk music producer and distributor Irving Steinbloom, who helped so many musicians with their careers, has passed on. In tribute, Irv's incredibly annoying, obsessively controlling son, Jonathan (Bob Balaban), has decided to put on a memorial concert featuring Irv's favorite musicians. It'll be aired on public television, so obviously the numbers (for over-the-hill folk singers who weren't even that great) should be . . . staggering. Let's meet:

• The Folksmen (played by Guest, McKean and Shearer), whose early (and unsuccessful) albums included the one-note titles "Hitchin,' " "Wishin,' " "Ramblin' " and "Singin.' " They've had their share of setbacks. For instance, Irving distributed their records without punching holes in the middle of them. That'll crimp sales right there. In this tribute, they're hoping to make a bigger comeback than they ever enjoyed in their inauspicious past.

• Mitch & Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara), a cute husband-and-wife duo well known for stopping in the middle of their hit song "Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" and actually smooching. Too bad about the divorce and Mitch's little breakdown. This concert will be a 30-year reunion for Mitch (who walks around in constant post-breakdown befuddlement) and Mickey, who's now married to Leonard Crabbe (Jim Piddock), a quirky Englishman who sells catheters and fusses over his model train sets.

• The Main Street Singers, a sort of Osmond family of the folk set. Well, that's the old name. The newly formed band, featuring merely one of the Main Street originals, is called the New Main Street Singers. And they're led by Terry Bohner (John Michael Higgins) and his ex-porno actress-wife, Laurie (Jane Lynch), who both believe in witchcraft and the religious intensity of pastel colors. This new nine-person group (calling themselves a "neuftet") also includes the very, very eager-beavery Sissy Knox (Parker Posey).

Anyone who has seen the comedies of Guest and company knows the procedure. The movie pretends to be a serious documentary, initially interviewing the characters, then following them around as they react to unfolding, increasingly tense situations.

As the Folksmen wait in their dressing room, for instance, they realize to their annoyance that the onstage New Main Street Singers are singing the very song the Folksmen were planning to perform themselves. And just before Mitch & Mickey are about to play, Mitch goes AWOL.

These are just a few of the precious developments in the movie. It's fun to watch the goofy triumvirate of Guest, McKean and Shearer -- collaborators on all these films who also wrote the music and lyrics (with musical contributions from O'Hara, composer C.J. Vanston and Annette O'Toole). It's also amusing to recognize all the members of the Guest troupe. Higgins, the leader of the New Main Street Singers, for instance, was the fussy, kimono-clad Shih Tzu handler in "Best in Show." And Fred Willard, the wonderfully inept dog show emcee Buck Laughlin in the same movie, is here a band manager named Mike LaFontaine, who was on a canceled TV series called "Wha' Happened?" He constantly reiterates the sitcom title, expecting people to guffaw with recognition. They never do.

There's an extra dimension here, not present in the other comedies. Not only is the material amusing, it's charmingly engaging. When Mitch and Mickey come to that dramatic, kissing moment in "Kiss at the End of the Rainbow," we catch ourselves waiting, not just for the comic potential, but the human element, too.

A MIGHTY WIND ( PG-13, 87 minutes) - Contains sex-related humor. Area theaters.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company